NEW ORLEANS -- A doctor from New Orleans is wondering why his United flight on Tuesday from San Francisco to Shanghai, China, was denied entry into Russian airspace moments before it was supposed to enter that area on its normal flight path.
Dr. Andy Brown says the plane was just minutes away from Russian airspace when it was suddenly redirected.
"And then I called the flight attendant over and I said, 'Are we landing in Tokyo?' And she says, 'Yes, because when we were between five and 10 minutes outside of Russian airspace, they said you're not allowed to enter the Russian air space.' And I said, 'Wow, um why?' And she says, 'Well, remember 1985? When a Russian tells you not to enter their airspace, you don't do it,'" recalled Brown, talking to us from Shanghai.
The reference is to Korean Airlines flight 007 from New York City, actually shot down in 1983 over Soviet airspace.
Brown said the flight attendant on United 857, called it an emergency diversion. Another passenger tweeted that the captain said "Due to diplomatic reasons, Russia denied access to airspace.
Brown is an emergency room doctor working in Louisiana, Chicago and Shanghai. He says he has taken the same flight around four times a year for seven years and says this has never happened.
"Something has happened between January and now, and the only thing I can think of that's happened, and it's been a big deal, is this event in Syria where the Russian people showed that they were quit upset with it," he said.
We contacted the U.S. State Department, who said this is not its area and pointed us to the FAA for answers. The FAA pointed us back to the State Department. United Airlines would only confirm the flight was diverted, but would not say why.
There are heightened tensions between Russian and the U.S. after last week's U.S. bombing of a Syrian Airport. The U.S. says that was a response to a chemical attack by the Syrian government on its own people. Today, U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two men seem unable to agree on facts about the deadly chemical weapons assault on Syrian civilians.
Brown says another passenger told him the diversion was "a big deal."
"It's so weird isn't it? Are we at risk? I mean, if we're flying over that airspace and we didn't turn around, are they going to shoot us?" Brown wondered.
Brown did get several E-mail messages of apology from United Airlines for his inconvenience and a choice of 6,250 bonus miles in his travel account or a certificate worth $125.00.
United Airlines also said they were checking with air traffic controllers and doubted they would have an answer by airtime or that there was anything to this situation.